Let there be light!

October 15, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project team have been conducting a series of display mock-ups since July of this year. These allow us to test the new arrangements of objects and involve bringing together artefacts located in the V&A’s many stores and or galleries. The pictures here show one such early morning mock-up in progress.

Developing lighting strategies for bronze sculptures.The objects are gathered before the Museum opens to the public with the assistance of staff from the collection departments. The objects are transported in baskets, with each object supported by wads of tissue ensuring that they are stable during transit. They are then assembled in a special room equipped with adjustable display surfaces so the team can decide which height works best for each object and the viewer. The lighting in the room can also be varied. Curators, conservators, designers, lighting contractors and educators attend to discuss the displays and to pool their expertise. Discussion centres around the size of the cases, the height of object within the cases, the location of labels, how objects will be mounted and what type of lighting will be necessary. All these factors are assessed to ensure that the objects look their best and form a coherent and effective display.

The most recent mock up involved one of the finest Renaissance bronze sculptures in the V&A’s collection, a statuette of the mythical hero Meleager by Antico. The statuette has to be handled carefully and the mock-up was carried out in special conditions. The figure has extensive areas of gilding and some details are inlaid with silver. Effective lighting enables these details to be picked out to dramatic effect. You can see the statuette in the picture above. The Meleager’s leaning posture makes him difficult to light effectively from above and having experimented with different strength lamps, pointing from different angles, it was agreed that in-case lighting was the best approach. The golden curls on Meleager’s head and the tunic on his shoulders will catch the light thrown down from the lamps above, while his down turned face and inclining torso will be illuminated by the glow from fibre-optic lamps below him.

Developing lighting strategies for medieval and Renaissance objects.The picture to the left was also taken during the same mock up session. The object illustrated here is a fourteenth-century French coffret. It is covered with decorated boiled leather and poses different challenges. Some materials are particularly sensitive to strong light. Boiled leather needs a relatively low light level. However the decoration on the coffret, which was created using stamps and a range of special modelling tools while the leather was still wet, requires good light if the visitor is to appreciate the detailing. Therefore the lighting had to be just right to give the optimum viewing experience, without endangering the condition of the object. In order to achieve the correct light levels, and as you can see in this picture, a light meter was used to gauge the light which fell on the object.

The mock-ups are an important part of the process in developing the new displays. Despite the amount of work involved in setting them up they’re always enjoyed by those taking part. Everyone appreciates the opportunity to see the objects up close and outside of the cases. In addition there is always a curatorial expert on hand and its fascinating to here them talk about the objects.

Many thanks to my colleague Simon Carter for providing the pictures and information for this blog entry. Simon is the member of project team with the most responsibility for arranging the display mock-ups.

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